Finding the voice of voters in India

As Western democracies deal with voter rage and populist parties, India’s leader tries to appeal to poor voters by enlisting them in development, even asking them to think differently.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi, India, March 12.

In a survey of 22 advanced countries last year, Barclays financial firm found that the causes of voter rage – reflected in the rise of populist parties – were not really income inequality, globalization, or a loss of national sovereignty. Rather the deeper cause lies in a feeling of disenfranchisement, or that “elites” in ruling institutions do not represent the views of common people.

The survey did not include India, the world’s largest democracy, but it should have. A prime minister who was elected there in 2014, Narendra Modi, has begun to define a type of governance that appeals directly to low-income voters who feel left out of national politics. The heart of his appeal lies less in making promises to voters and more in rallying them to change their thinking.

A good example is Mr. Modi’s speech after winning a stunning victory last weekend in India’s largest and most politically significant province, Uttar Pradesh. The province is home to 200 million of India’s 1.2 billion people and would be a major country on its own. For decades it has been dominated by local parties. But Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, took the election by a wide margin. The victory is all the more stunning given that it came four months after Modi withdrew the large currency bills, or 86 percent of the currency in circulation, in a bid to reduce corruption. 

In his speech, the prime minister showed more humility than triumph. “Governments are formed by majority, but run by consensus,” he said. He noted that the focus of a “new India” must be on people under 35 years and on women, most of whom live in poverty. While the government must work on economic development, Modi also made this statement:

“The poor of the nation has left the mentality of liking somebody only because he has been given something. The poor wants to progress by the dint of their hard labor. [The poor say] you create an opportunity for me, I will work hard and grow,” he said.

Modi often asks his audience to change their mentality – about their attitudes toward girls, for example, or about sanitation conditions. And his party, which is now the largest political party in the world’s largest democracy, is taking India on a path that its previous popular rulers did not. Modi still needs to create jobs – about a million a month – to help lift the poor. But his first goal is to make sure the poor do not feel disenfranchised. And he’s doing so by asking for their help in changing their own thinking.

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